Taiwan School of Arts & Crafts

Turning the Industry Upside Down

2019 / April

Esther Tseng /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Bruce Humes

In his 1952 book Formosa Industrial Art, Yan Shui-long, dubbed “the father of Taiwanese crafts,” proposed the creative utilization of Taiwan’s indigenous materials in the design of craft products that would conform to a contemporary lifestyle. By fusing artistic design with craftsmanship, not only could these goods be exported, they could preserve artisanal skills and nurture society’s cultural awareness, while also benefiting the national economy.

Influenced by the spirit of Yan’s vision for craft design, over the last few years a wave of emphasis on handmade crafts has quietly arisen, including recently popular hands-on “ex­peri­ence courses,” and the transformation of traditional craft industries via innovation. These trends can all be traced back to the establishment of the Taiwan School of Arts & Crafts.

“In Yan Shui-long’s era, craftsmanship was a stabil­iz­ing force for the rural economy. Nowadays, to use modern termino­logy, revitalizing craftsmanship signifies ‘regional revital­iza­tion,’” opines Chen Ming­hui, founder of the Taiwan School of Arts & Crafts. In the past, when Chen channeled his energies into Taiwanese crafts education, his aims were the same as when establishing the school: “I didn’t want Taiwan’s craftsmanship to be limited to items on display at a museum. I wanted handicrafts that, thanks to their design, would be full of culture and aesthetic appeal, and could once again figure in the modern person’s daily life. At the same time, I wanted to create a modality for regional revitalization that would stabilize local economies.”

Establishing Taiwan School of Arts & Crafts

While chatting about how he came to found the school, Chen Ming­hui, who sports a neatly trimmed beard, reveals that the school’s origins were rooted in setbacks he faced while working in the public sector. 

At one time, Chen worked for the National Culture and Arts Foundation, offering support to community and tribal crafts. He discovered that Taiwan possessed strong capabilities in woodworking, and once ranked among the top three contract suppliers worldwide. But while the younger generation of designers could turn out goods that were comparable in quality to EU craft products, due to a lack of distribution channels the industry found its livelihood under threat.

In order to help young designers market their ori­ginal works, Chen exited the public sector and in 2008 opened “Liv’in Riverside,” a shop specializing in Taiwan­ese handicrafts. It utilized a “guided museum” approach to introducing and selling made-in-Taiwan crafts, and can be considered as a predecessor to “concept stores.” This interaction with the real marketplace, however, revealed the industry’s dual challenge: younger consumers’ lack of familiarity with crafts made from natural materials such as bamboo and rattan, and, on the production side, an extreme shortage of artisans.

As he continued his explorations in operating a retail outlet, Chen realized that rejuvenating Taiwan’s handi­craft industry was not simply a marketing challenge; the existing system required change. So in 2018 Chen made up his mind to establish Taiwan School of Arts & Crafts, because “if you want to solve the personnel problem, you must start with education.”

The ideas and energy Chen had accumulated over a decade literally exploded upon the establishment of the school. It first collaborated with Pop Up Asia exhibi­tions and 29 handicraft brands, and launched 50 arts and crafts courses all in one go. Feedback was positive. Furthermore, in an uncoordinated but fortuitous move, the Ministry of Education announced that it would reintroduce a school handi­crafts curriculum in Taiwan’s 2019‡20 academic year syllabus. 

Turning conventional wisdom upside down

After an absence of nine years, the return of handicrafts to the syllabus follows the division of the “technology domain” into two distinct subjects: IT and life sciences. A certain number of class hours will be devoted to handicrafts that emphasize practice of manual skills, in order to cultivate appreciation for craftsmanship.

For example, Tao­yuan’s Daxi District is a center for fabrication of shrine tables and wooden furniture, and home to the Daxi Wood Art Ecomuseum. In order to promote in-school woodworking classes for young students, Taiwan Arts & Crafts School assists the district in teacher training and curriculum design.

But does this mean students, saw in hand, practicing carpentry in school?

Taiwan Arts & Crafts School invited Stephan Johannes Elbracht, who has three decades of education experience in the field—including teaching carpentry to students in grades five to 12 at a Waldorf School in Germany—to train craft teachers on the ground in Taiwan. For the opening of his training course, he used an axe to cleave a large block of timber. This dramatic act of sundering shocked his trainees, and turned upside down their ideas of what constitutes a woodworking class.

In his classroom, filled with the fragrance of wood shavings, students can experience the flavor and texture of wood fiber, and become aware of the value of utilizing natural materials to create crafts manually; or, via the process of shaping a wooden soup spoon, a youngster can be taught how to appreciate the rhythm and patterns represented by the wood grain on the back of that eating utensil.

“In Germany, woodworking is a mainstream course, unlike in Taiwan where it is secondary and treated as an excuse to take a rest, or from which time gets ‘borrowed’ for classes in the sciences or mathematics,” explains Ni Ming­xiang, director of the Graduate Institute of Early Childhood Education at Taiwan’s National Cheng­chi University, who helped design the lesson plans. “The woodworking curriculum is not designed to teach technical knowhow. It is intended to help woodworking culture and manual craftsmanship to return to Taiwan society. Training in carpentry is fundamental education. The focus is not on the head, but on the connection between hand and heart.” 

Design is life itself

The demise of one after another of Taiwan’s traditional crafts seems to recount the same sad tale: the disappearance of master craftsmen, and products no longer essential to contemporary lifestyles. Can this trend, seemingly irreversible, actually be addressed through innovative design concepts?

In fact, more and more traditional craft industry sectors are experimenting with creative designs and inter­action with a new generation of consumers in order to establish a fresh image for handicrafts carrying new brand names. Lai Hsin You, who returned to take over his family’s lacquer art business, is one example.

Lai is the third generation of his family to operate Kou­san Craft, a lacquerware producer. His grandfather Lai Gao­shan formerly studied at the Tai­chung Institute for Crafts Education, run by Ta­dasu Yama­naka of Japan, and employed the difficult-to-master “thousand-layer” technique to create gift items such as tea ceremony utensils, tableware and cigarette cases. Proceeds from exports to Japan were used to purchase the building that today houses the Lai­kou­san Memorial Art Museum, and to dispatch his son Lai Zuo­ming, who eventually became a master craftsman of lacquerware, to Japan for studies. 

Like other traditional crafts, however, with the mass production of plastic and stainless-steel items, lacquer­ware—due to its extremely time-consuming and labor-­intensive fabrication—is under serious threat. Lai Hsin You has chosen to follow in the footsteps of his grand­father, returning to production of more mundane items in which design can be integrated with modern ele­ments—like earrings, or chopsticks with rests—in order to promote lacquerware’s quotidian usage.

“As many as eight out of ten people have never bought an item of lacquerware, and when they hear the term ‘lacquer,’ they assume it’s a chemical coating used for interior decoration,” laments Lai. Each weekend he commutes between markets across the island, promoting the art and communicating face to face with consumers. “Lacquer is made from the sap of the lacquer tree. Lacquer chopsticks consist of multiple layers applied one by one. They are warm and smooth to the touch, resistant to high temperatures and easy to clean, and unlike their wooden counterparts, they don’t tend to grow moldy.” Via his lacquer art experience classes, Lai helps consumers feel the value and beauty of lacquerware through the complex process of their fabrication.

Craftsmanship with society’s needs in mind

In addition to Kou­san Craft’s Lai Hsin You, there is also furniture supplier Sanhe Wood Art with more than five decades of experience. It employs carpentry courses to help students use their hands to get to know the thickness of the wood and the force needed to chisel out a hole or assemble a joint, by making a stool with drawers, a table with a keyboard tray or a jewelry box. In so doing, they experience the real value of an item fashioned from wood. At the same time, this is a way of promoting handi­craft design that suits a contemporary lifestyle.

In Chen Ming­hui’s opinion, many traditional craft industries are transitioning toward becoming know­ledge-­based service industries. The value of a handmade product is not in the product itself; rather it lies in the link between technology and localized culture. He believes that thanks to the efforts of the island’s educational system, Taiwan’s crafts industry is full of promise. “Perhaps ten years from now, when a child tells his or her parents, ‘I want to be a master craftsperson,’ they will respond, ‘Great!’” Chen, who is keen to start from education, concludes with a smile that like Yan Shui-long and his emphasis on the concept of “craft design,” he is hopeful that a lasting solution can be found: utilizing the wisdom of revitalized craft design to add a new structure to our lives.                      

Relevant articles

Recent Articles

繁體 日本語



文‧曾蘭淑 圖‧林格立

















台灣工藝美術學校邀請一位在德國華德福學校教5~12年級木工課,長達30年木工教育經驗的Stephan Johannes Elbracht來台灣培訓木藝老師。培訓課一開始,他先用一把「斧頭」鑿開木頭,這一「劈」,嚇醒了前來上課的工藝老師,也翻轉了大家對木工課程的想法。

















文・曾蘭淑 写真・林格立 翻訳・山口 雪菜
















台湾工芸美術学校では、ドイツのヴァルドルフ学校で5〜12年生に木工を教えて30年になるStephan Johannes Elbracht氏を招いて、木工教員の育成を行なっている。Elbracht氏は最初の授業で、いきなり「斧」を取り出して木材を割ってみせた。これには講習を受けに来ていた工芸科の教員たちも驚き、それと同時に木工科に対する考え方を大きく変えることとなった。













X 使用【台灣光華雜誌】APP!